Gravity: Japan to test ‘magnetic net’ that can fish out floating space junk

January 18, 2014SPACEThe Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) is teaming up with a company that manufactures fishing equipment to create a net that will sweep the heavens of the man-made debris orbiting our planet. The first test of the equipment is scheduled to start in late February, when a rocket will be launched and a satellite developed by researchers at Kagawa University will be deployed. Once in orbit, the satellite is designed to unreel a wire net some 300 metres long that will then generate a magnetic field and – theoretically – attract some of the debris that is circulating beyond our atmosphere. And there is a growing need for outer space to undergo a good clean-up, with experts estimating that 100 million bits of man-made junk zipping around the earth. Of that total, some 22,000 are believed to measure 10 cm or larger and are therefore considered dangerous. The majority of the debris is in a band between 700 kilometers and 1,000 kilometers above the surface of the planet, mostly parts of obsolescent and degrading satellites and rockets. Out of control and impossible to accurately monitor, even the smallest piece of detritus – a single bolt, for example – could have a catastrophic result if it collides with a functioning satellite or the International Space Station, which has a permanent human crew aboard. A recent study in the U.S. suggested that a collision between two satellites could trigger an “uncontrolled chain reaction” that could destroy the communications network on earth.
“We started work on this project about five years ago and we are all excited to see the outcome of this first test,” Koji Ozaki, the engineer who heads the development team at Hiroshima-based Nitto Seimo, told the South China Morning Post. The net is a mere 30cm wide when it is unspooled and made of three strong and very flexible lengths of metal fiber, Ozaki said. Taking advantage of the company’s experience in the fishing industry, a net measuring 1 kilometer long has already been fabricated at Nitto Seimo’s factory. “Fishing nets need to be extremely strong because they need to be able to hold a large number of fish, but our tether does not have to be that strong,” he said. “It is more important that it is flexible.” Reports first emerged about the project three years ago, but there were no confirmations about it being tested. The upcoming test is designed to confirm that when a magnetic field is passed through the net, it is able to attract pieces of orbiting debris. Gradually, over the space of about one year, the net and the junk that it has collected will descend closer to Earth and burn up in the frictional heat generated when it reaches the atmosphere. In the future, Jaxa plans to use space craft to attach nets to larger pieces of space junk – rocket engines or satellites that are no longer operational – and let gravity and the atmosphere complete the task of eradicating the threat. Jaxa is planning further trials next year and a functioning system could be deployed as early as 2019. –SCMP
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9 Responses to Gravity: Japan to test ‘magnetic net’ that can fish out floating space junk

  1. Irene C says:

    And what are they going to do once they “capture” this stuff? And what if they capture something that isn’t junk? Just questions I have.

  2. Johnsonas says:

    You can bet there’s profit in that…

  3. taffyduff says:

    I find this fascinating! looks like the Japanese team have been watching ‘Gravity’. A brill film that shows what can happen when a satellite becomes in contact with ‘space debris’. I think this net system is a wonderful idea.
    If it works!

  4. fender says:

    It’s a miracle that we still exist.

  5. Janice says:

    Absolutely fascinating! Cleaning up space junk? I’m no scientist, so forgive my dumb question.
    Can this electromagnetic fishing net negatively impact earth’s geomagnetic shield?

  6. Dennis E. says:

    Actually, and don’t laugh, this is an old idea.

    I think it is a functional idea. I think it is a great idea.

    Another idea for bigger size objects would be to attach small rocket motors and send the item into a controlled crash and let them burn up.

  7. Meema says:

    Makes so much sense! Spend millions (billions?) cleaning up space while copious amounts of deadly radiation is being dumped in the Pacific. You can’t make this stuff up.

  8. tonic says:

    To generate a magnetic field in a 30cm net is possible but needs a hell of a lot of power to maintain. A 1 kilometre wide net? the amount of power required……… kilowatts of power from where?

  9. tonic says:

    The amount of power to create a magnetic field of this proportion is, well, pretty high. To sustain it, is at the least, one hell of an achievement. It must have one hell of a solar array. And one hell of a battery bank.
    I find this really difficult to believe, noble as the idea is.

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